by Kate Harris
The jungle is just beautiful, a dense tangle of green with an incredible diversity of plant, insect and animal life. It is never quiet, and at night the chorus of insect and animal noises sounds like some kind of New Age relaxation CD, it's just amazing. Every night we make camp by setting up our hammocks (surprisingly comfortable!) & mosquito nets in supportive structures constructed with saplings by the rangers. There are a number of these base camps scattered throughout the reserve, and if you end up somewhere where one doesn't exist, you simply build a new one. I'm learning how to use a parang, an invaluable jungle tool that is similar to a machete.
Leeches are everywhere. As you walk through the forest, you can see them on leaves and branches, balanced on their hind end or sucker or whatever you want to call it, waving their fore sucker in the air in search of some poor blood donor. They don't actually hurt when they bite, which is a bit of a drawback since it means you can't feel them in order to pull them. Often you'll just spot a large stain of blood on your clothing and that'll tell you that you've been suckered. The insects here are HUGE! There are pill bugs so massive that when they roll up into a ball, you could use it to play pool. There are giant millipedes, centipedes, cockroaches, beetles, cicadas, and ants, so I always hesitate before grabbing a vine or branch for balance because of what might be lurking there.
My survey team had a close encounter with an angry mama elephant and her baby - I didn't actually get a glimpse of them, but the bushes across this ravine were flailing about like mad and loud trumpeting as emanating from them, so we hastily made our escape to safer ground.
After returning from the first jungle survey, the lot of us went to Sabahmas, an oil palm plantation at the border of the wildlife reserve. We stayed with the plantation workers for a few days, helped with harvesting palm oil, learned how to feast on food gathered from the land, and sang and danced with the whole community. By the time I left, I couldn't help but slightly change my mind about plantations. It's very easy to categorize plantations as The Enemy, but after living with the workers, it's apparent that they're only human and they're trying to survive in the only way they know how. Also, as Tracey, a vet student volunteering from America, who are we to criticize their actions when North Americans were just as destructive to their natural environment, only we did most of the damage years and years ago?
Laura and I took a break for a day of snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on Manukan Island off the northern coast of Borneo. The water was incredible - crystal clear, bath water warm, full of dazzling corals and fish. I felt like I was in a National Geographic special! In fact, that pretty much sums up the whole adventure so far. Right now we're in town shopping for supplies (rice, dried fish, granola - the essentials) for the next jungle trek, which will begin in a couple of days.
I spend the next week trekking in the rainforest with a team of rangers while Laura and Tracy worked on other projects back in civilization. We recovered a photo trap and conducted linear transects in some of the most remote regions of the wildlife reserve. I practiced my Bahasa Malay (the rangers' English vocabulary is largely limited to words they pick up from karaoke, which is insanely popular here), did some wood carving, and learned how to live off the land by catching fish for dinner, harvesting young fern shoots, and collecting this pale gooey fungus that is surprisingly delicious when fried. Thanks to a quieter expedition team, this time in the jungle I got to see some amazing wildlife. Giant lizards, jungle chickens, wild boar, pygmy squirrels and - best of all - elephants. The team and I were silently hiking along one of the main trails when the head ranger suddenly froze and started frantically unsnapping his pack buckles, ready to bolt. At first I was completely baffled, but before I had the chance to ask what was going on, a huge mama elephant and her baby suddenly emerged from the jungle less then a volleyball court length away from me! She stopped, peered suspiciously at the lot of us, considered her options, then (phew!) turned the other way and crashed into the forest, baby in tow. It was absolutely incredible. I get a rush just thinking about it.
After the jungle expedition - alas, no rhino sightings - I flew to Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and was reunited Laura and Tracy. Returning to civilization from the jungle is always a bit of a shock, but going from living in a simple hammock in the biting, stinging, scratching, sucking rainforest to the luxurious Shangri-La, a five star holiday resort on the coast of the South China sea, was like being electrocuted. I say electrocuted because the contrast was almost too much - clean clothes, heaping plates full of the most delicious food imaginable, discotheques, hot tubs, television...amazing, sure, but when you've been perfectly content getting by on so much less, it all seemed a little empty and unsatisfying. Even so, it was a nice break for a couple of days, and our stay there wasn't completely self-indulgent. We were there to attend the 2nd Annual Rhino Conservation Seminar, an international meeting for scientists, politicians, and business folk. While the conference described the progress made on the rhino conservation front in the past year, it also highlighted the incredible amount of work that still remains to be done. I have tremendous admiration for SOS Rhino, who has managed to accomplish so much in the face of logistical challenges and political adversity.
On another break, Laura and I had our sights set on climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia. At over 13,000 ft., Kinabalu was a challenging climb. The scenery was stunning ‚ sparse, above-the-treeline vegetation was a welcome change from the lush, suffocating green of the rainforest ‚ and it was so refreshing to breathe cool air again.
We stayed for a few days at Sepilok, an orang utan rehabilitation center. While at Sepilok, we also got to see the captive rhinos, which was definitely a highlight. We had trudged through muck, endured leeches, and braved the heat to search for this elusive beast, and there he was, right before our eyes, in a cozy little enclosure, gently munching on leaves. They're short and stout creatures, solid of girth and tough of skin, with a scraggly coating of course reddish hair covering their bodies - definitely nothing like the African rhino. It was really sobering to think that I was looking at one of the last few remaining Sumantran rhinos in the world, that in a couple of decades they might (at the rate we're going, WILL) be gone for all time. We just can't let this happen.
After Sepilok, I was really excited about going back into the jungle (all the more determined to track down those rhinos!).
Iím halfway around the world now, safely back home in Canada, enjoying the cooler weather but missing life in Borneo already. Reflecting back on my summer, I am amazed at the incredible range of things I participated in and learned. This summer experience gave me an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at a real conservation movement at work. Trekking in the jungle on wildlife surveys; seeing the rhino captive breeding program at Sepilok; 'getting to know the enemy' at an oil palm plantation; attending an international environmental conference ‚ these experiences taught me about environmental conservation from all possible angles. I canít imagine a more thrilling, educational, and diverse volunteering experience, and Iím already counting down the days until I can return to Borneo. In the meanwhile, I am going to do what I can to further the cause of SOS Rhino by soliciting financial support, continuing to be environmentally active, and sharing my experience with as many people as possible.